Terrorism is not a difficult concept to define. It means deliberate, premeditated violence perpetrated against non-combatants with the aim of advancing a political goal. Al-Qaeda is a terrorist group. Hamas is a terrorist group. Islamic Jihad is a terrorist group.
But from the way some Western media outlets report on terrorism, one might think the term was shrouded in ambiguity. Many journalists refuse to use the T-word- except in scare quotes - out of a professed fear that its usage would suggest they were "taking sides." The Reuters news agency, for instance, rejects the word terrorist as too "emotive." According to a policy statement posted on the company's Web site, the agency does "not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead reports their actions, identity and background so that readers can make their own decisions based on the facts." Reuters describes the Hamas killers who blow up buses and restaurants as "militants." Other media outlets go further, sometimes calling them "activists" - as if they were clipboard-bearing political volunteers seeking petition signatures.
A Reuters-style policy would make sense if the words at issue were "evil," "nihilistic," "savage" or barbaric" - all terms we freely apply to terrorists in this space, but which are out of place in an objective news story. But "terrorist" has no less a fixed and objective definition than "police officer' or "pilot." As the national Post's editorial policy in this area states: "Terrorism is a technical term. It describes a modus operandi, a tactic. Those who bomb [civilians are] terrorists. We as journalists do not violate our impartiality by describing them as such."
Yesterday, our candid method of describing Middle Eastern terrorist groups became a news item itself, on CBC Radio, when Reuters took us to task for applying our editorial style to Reuters news stories that appear on our pages. "If they want to put their own judgment into it, they're free to do that," says Reuters global managing editor David Schlesinger. "But then they shouldn't say that it's by a Reuters reporter."
We agree that the wore "terrorist" must be used carefully: It should not be applied to groups that target soldiers, as do some insurgents in Iraq, But Mr. Schlesinger's broader implication - that the substantive meaning of his reporters' stories are being universally vitiated by our house style - is one we reject: As readers themselves know, there is no legitimate debate about whether Hamas or the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades is a terrorist group. The agency's use of euphemisms merely serves to apply a misleading gloss of political correctness. And we believe we owe it to our readers to remove it before they see their newspaper every morning.
Note: This editorial appeared in the September 18th, 2004 print edition of the National Post. I reproduce it here to provide the other side of the CBC story to let the reader judge. - Leo